In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Modern Editions
  • Poems in Anthologies
  • Antonius and A Discourse in Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Biographies
  • Mary Sidney and Shakespeare
  • Patronage
  • Publication of the Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia

British and Irish Literature Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke
Margaret P. Hannay
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0053


Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (b. 1561–d. 1621), was the first woman in England to be celebrated as a literary figure. She evidently began her public literary writing and patronage to honor her famous brother Sir Philip Sidney after his death in 1586, encouraging writers who praised him, translating works that he would have approved, writing encomia, and completing the metrical Psalms that he had begun. She published two French translations under her own name in 1592, Antonius by Robert Garnier (her translation influenced Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra), and Discours de la vie et de la mort by Philippe de Mornay, Sieur du Plessis-Mornay. She also translated Petrarch’s Triumph of Death into terza rima; it survives only in a transcription by Sir John Harington, indicating limited manuscript circulation. She wrote a pastoral drama, “A Dialogue between Two Shepherds, Thenot and Piers, in Praise of Astrea,” evidently in preparation for Queen Elizabeth’s planned visit to her home in 1599. Two dedicatory poems accompany the Sidney Psalter, “Even Now That Care” to Queen Elizabeth, and “To the Angell Spirit of Sir Philip Sidney.” She may also have written an early poem in praise of her brother, “The Dolefull Lay,” though authorship is disputed. Most important are her metrical Psalms that use 126 different verse forms: these were praised by contemporaries including Nicholas Breton, Abraham Fraunce, John Donne, Aemilia Lanyer, and Edmund Spenser. The Sidney Psalms strongly influenced the 17th-century devotional lyric, particularly that of George Herbert. Contemporaries celebrated her poetry, scholarship and piety, as well as her beauty and her excellence in the feminine accomplishments of needlework, singing, and lute playing. She was an active member of court circles, seeking and accepting political favors. Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke may also be referred to as Mary Sidney Herbert, Mary Herbert, or Mary Sydney. (Note that references may be alphabetized under Herbert, Pembroke, Sidney, or Sydney. She is sometimes erroneously referred to as “Lady Mary Herbert,” which was the title of her sister-in-law. To be concise in this bibliography she is referred to as MSH and her famous brother Sir Philip Sidney as SPS.)

General Overviews

Beilin 1987 was the first to present MSH in the context of other women writers, stressing her literary vocation; Clarke 2001, Demers 2005, and Walker 1996 also analyze her work with that of other early modern women; Alexander 2006 stresses the influence of SPS on MSH and others. Waller 2009 reassesses early work on MSH, including his own. Hannay 2009 offers reprints of twenty-five important articles by as many authors and provides a lengthy bibliographic essay as introduction.

  • Alexander, Gavin. Writing After Sidney: The Literary Response to Sir Philip Sidney, 1586–1640. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    Focuses on Mary and Robert Sidney, Fulke Greville, and Mary Wroth. See chapter 4, “The Last Word: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke” (pp. 76–127). Essential study of the literary influence of SPS on MSH and others. Biographical rather than political interpretation of MSH’s works: “It is writing about death that Pembroke comes alive as a poet” (p. 103). Perceptive analysis of poetic technique, particularly that of Psalms 55 and 143.

  • Beilin, Elaine. Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

    Foundational study, including chapter 5 on MSH, the first early modern women “who sought a clear literary vocation.” Notes her growth as a writer and follows her three related interests: “the godly life, the relationship between poetry and divine truth, and the role of the pious female poet” (p. 122).

  • Clarke, Danielle. The Politics of Early Modern Women’s Writing. London: Longman, 2001.

    Overview of women’s writing in various genres; treats MSH’s Psalms with Anne Lock. Argues that MSH’s complex text is neither translation nor original in the usual sense; it “has much to teach us about Renaissance notions of authorship and female agency” (p. 147). Reworks Clarke’s article “The Politics of Translation and Gender,” Translation and Literature 6.2 (1997): 149–166.

  • Demers, Patricia. Women’s Writing in English: Early Modern England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

    A helpful general introduction for undergraduates and general readers. MSH is treated briefly as the first of six major authors (pp. 195–202).

  • Hannay, Margaret P., ed. Ashgate Critical Essays on Women Writers in England, 1550–1700. Vol. 2, Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. Aldershot, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009.

    Reprints twenty-five important articles, most of which are not readily accessible elsewhere. Introduction studies critical heritage, and the book includes an extensive bibliography.

  • Walker, Kim. Women Writers of the English Renaissance. London: Twayne, 1996.

    MSH “locates herself as a writer within the context of the family, while employing translation, piety, and a focus on death to counter the constraints of that discourse” (p. 72), and she uses her brother’s reputation to manipulate gender ideology. Gives overview of her works.

  • Waller, Gary. “The Countess of Pembroke and Gendered Reading.” In Women Editing/ Editing Women. Edited by Ann Hollinshead Hurley and Chanita Goodblatt, 35–54. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2009.

    Revisits his early work. To read MSH now “is to read with an awareness that there are no fixed meanings of ‘her’ text, but that her writing, her cultural situatedness, her role as a woman written by men, can be explicated in gender-sensitive terms without being limited by them” (p. 51).

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